Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
The Belmonts are gone. You can’t really blame them, either. They’ve been trying to save humanity from Dracula’s wrath for centuries. That kind of responsibility is a burden so heavy it could crush a normal person. Despite this, the Belmonts have persevered throughout the ages. Now that they’ve stepped out of the scene, a new generation of would-be vampire killers has risen up to take their place. Of course, destroying Dracula without the aid of legendary and/or blessed weapons of old is… Well, it’s basically impossible. Not surprisingly, most of these new upstarts have found little success in their mission to destroy the infamous vampire. The Order of Ecclesia, however, has stumbled across a magical spell that might just have enough power to reseal the dark lord and hopefully save the world. But before it could be passed onto Shanoa (aka the female lead), it gets swiped by a rival Order member. Considering that this spell is the only non-Belmont thing remotely capable of taking down Dracula, the Order needs to get it back, and fast. As such, Shanoa is ordered to not only retrieve it, but smite the forces of evil as well.
Wait a minute. A Castlevania game without a Belmont? Not even a Morris?! You can practically hear the incredulous shouts and scandalized gasps of all the long-time fans of the series. Don’t worry, folks; Shanoa may not have fancy whip or some holy water, but she doesn’t need them. Technically, she doesn’t wield any conventional weapons at all; the majority of her offensive capabilities are based upon her use of sorcery. Rather than picking up a real sword, lance, or any other regular armament, she’ll come across a glyph (which is nothing more than another word for magical spell) that corresponds to a certain weapon. Thus, she can use the spell as much as she wants, as long as she has enough magical power (conveniently displayed at the top of the screen) to perform it. This is one of the many aspects of Order of Ecclesia that makes the game harder than its predecessors; since there are limits placed upon your attacks, you’re going to have to focus more on tactics as opposed to rushing the enemy head on.
It’s entirely possible to run out of magical power mid-battle, especially at lower levels. It becomes less of a problem as you level up and get better stats (not to mention that the energy meter replenishes itself in mere seconds if you stop fighting), but the limits are ever present. Despite this, the game encourages that you test Shanoa’s abilities to the fullest extent. Unlike the previous games, there are no silly, tacked-on touch screen gimmicks; Shanoa just has a lot of ways to deal out damage. She can even wield two spells at once and toggle between different movesets with a handy control shortcut. It’s this dual-wielding capability that provides the basis for Shanoa’s more powerful spells. Rather than thrusting with a lance and summoning a pillar of flame, she can combine the skills together and create a massive, fiery sword with incredible attack power. Or she could cause a barrage of arrows to rain from the sky, or swat away foes with a giant lightsaber, or countless other ridiculously awesome moves. Acquiring additional spells involves the gameplay mechanic utilized in Aria and Dawn of Sorrow; after an enemy is defeated, it might leave a glyph behind to be collected. You can even steal your enemies’ spells as they’re casting them. Half the fun of using Shanoa is nabbing several magic spells, combining them to make the best customized movesets possible, and razing the battlefield accordingly.
There’s a good reason why Order of Ecclesia encourages you to focus on offensive capabilities and attack strategies. Basically, this game is hard. Not as aggravating as the old school platformers, but arguably the most difficult of all the Castlevania games that have been on the GBA and DS. Those that have been spoiled with the pathetic challenge of Aria of Sorrow and the last two games are going to be in for a serious wakeup call once they get to the later areas. Rather than pitting you against a handful of inept pushovers, the game forces you to deal with room after room crowded with aggressive enemies. You might have to travel up a steep slope, nimbly leaping over falling rocks, all while being swarmed with killer crows in midair. You could have to explore an series of underwater caverns, all while dealing with poisonous starfish, bloodthirsty eels, and flame-throwing skulls. The sheer number and clever placements of these foes ensure that you’re going to be dodging and running almost as much as attacking. Many of these monsters won’t go down without a fight or taking a high amount of damage. Even worse are the bosses, which can prove astoundingly difficult for the unprepared. Being able to recognize and react to enemy attack patterns – the basis of many of the older titles – is essential to your survival. No matter how much you level up, you will die if you can’t read your enemies.
You’ll have to learn fast, too. If you can’t deal with a certain area, you won’t be able to make any progress in the game. Order of Ecclesia operates on that all-too familiar style of exploration started in Symphony of the Night. You’re transported into an area made up of connected rooms and passageways, allow of which is conveniently displayed on the top screen. In order to find all the items and bosses and whatever else is hidden away, you’ll have to search every inch of the given level. It’s a gameplay style that works well enough, even if it has outstayed its welcome in the series. But what makes this game different from this predecessors is the fact that the majority of it doesn’t even happen within Dracula’s castle. Instead, Shanoa will have to travel throughout the countryside, exploring different locales in the process. Rather than storming the vampire’s stronghold, she might clear a small building, move onto a village, wander down a linear stretch of forest, and end up along the coast. This system of separate levels makes the game somewhat less time-consuming; since you can choose to visit any unlocked area on the map screen, there’s little need for backtracking. There are even items that can be used to instantly transport you back into town, thus saving you from the frequent tough situations.
The problem with having so many locations (of which there are almost twenty) is that none of them seem fully developed. You might get some massive cavern or reef to explore, but the majority of the levels seem small and simplistic. Sure, there are some breakable walls and hidden rooms, but nothing particularly interesting. What makes up for it is the design of the levels and the placement of the enemies. You might have trek down a straight path through a desolate landscape of dead trees and foggy sky, but you’ll have to deal with mucky floors that slow your progress and a fleet of demonic dragons and birds. Having to explore a relatively tiny cave is one thing, but not when it’s entirely made of bones and filled with diehard skeleton enemies. Other areas might put more emphasis on atmosphere, like the spot out at sea with the storm, the choppy waves, and the shipwreck being flung about in the background. However, so much variety is a double-edged sword; while there is a lot to see, this game lacks the atmosphere and uniformity that Dawn of Sorrow so memorable. Despite this, Order of Ecclesia offers plenty for those sick of the usual crusade through Dracula’s abode.
Even if the levels are interesting, the game as a whole feels horribly short. If you’re going for the best ending possible with all the areas unlocked, it shouldn’t take you more than nine or ten hours to complete. That’s including all the grinding you’ll be doing to get Shanoa into fighting shape. Taking that into consideration, it’s little wonder that the game offers several unlockable post-game options. Aside from the standard Boss Rush and Sound Modes, you’ll be able play through the game again with one of the secondary characters (a glance at the game’s cover art ought to make it obvious) that comes with its own challenges. But if you prefer something a little more interactive, the game also sports a small handful of multiplayer options, such as item trading and competitive racing via local wireless and Wifi connections. However, none of these features (with the notable exception of the bonus playthrough) has enough staying power to keep you distracted from the brevity of the main game.
It’s interesting. The basic formula of the last five or six Castlevania titles has gotten old. The concept of room-by-room and branching path exploration is indeed a good one, but there comes a point in which simply reusing it just won’t cut it anymore. As such, Order of Ecclesia not only strives to be better than just another one of those games, but succeeds. Shanoa is a different breed of vampire-killing protagonists, and her magic more than makes up for her lack of a Belmont’s powers. The game places heavy emphasis on her capabilities; the sheer amount of spells to collect and combine ensures that you’ll have plenty of ways to tinker around with movesets and strategies. It’ll be necessary to do so. This game is far harder than any of the titles you might have played in the last few years. This game will challenge you not only to explore every inch of the multiple levels, but be able to think in battle and recognize the strategies of your diehard foes. It’s just a shame that the game is so utterly short; even with so much post-game stuff to do, there’s always that lingering feeling that there could have been more. Regardless, Order of Ecclesia is the most engaging Castlevania game in ages. Pick it up if you want something good.